Throw out litter box tradition to protect Utah’s water
Sep 11, 2019 11:52AM
By Amy Green
A poop tube and a wag bag. (Amy Green/City Journals)
By Amy Green | [email protected]
According to Utah’s Department of Natural Resources and visitation data, over seven million people spent time in our magnificent parks between July 2018 through July 2019.
Have you ever wondered where all those people are pooping? Consider, most of our water comes from the Wasatch mountains, where its state park had over 500,000 visits in the last 12 months. In generations gone by, many were taught to dig a “cathole” outdoors to “go No. 2.” A cathole is a small pit made to hide and bury human feces.
There’s all kinds of rules on digging a proper cathole — where, how deep, etc. Feel free to forget those rules. Please forget them. Everyone needs you to forget them.
Kevin Gmitro is an experienced outdoorsman and co-owner of The Gear Room (a mountain adventure supply store at 3422 E. Fort Union Blvd. in Cottonwood Heights). “We used to be told that catholes are copasetic,” he said. “To dig six inches down was fine. But because of how many people are visiting the canyon and alpine areas, that’s not really the case anymore. That poop makes it into our water sources, regardless of how deep you dig. So that’s not the way you want to do it anymore.”
Gmitro makes solid points. “We pick up after our dogs, so we need to pick up after ourselves. There’s water in all these environments. Water helps break it down, but also helps carry it down. We’re all drinking out of that water. The higher alpine areas like the Uintas are a more delicate ecosystem, even more so than the Wasatch, so poop is even more frowned upon up there. We all go to the same zones to enjoy Utah. Mirror Lake Highway is awesome because it splits the Uintas. It only accesses a short chunk of the range though, so we all congregate in the same few dozen square miles. If you are going to some of the more popular areas, it’s imperative to get your poop out of there,” he emphasized.
Madison Goodman, gearhead at The Gear Room added, “Here’s what we all forget…we think we live in this grand mountain range, which we do. But all our water comes from this grand mountain range. And there’s a million-plus people living in this valley. So if every single one of them were to take a poop, that would be a million poops coming down into our water stream. And that would be so gross.”
Hard to argue with that.
According to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Utah’s drinking water comes from either surface water (lakes, reservoirs, rivers) or groundwater (wells or springs) — altogether 1,850 sources. Unfortunately, some of the poop coming from seven million visitors each year makes its way into our drinking water. The situation requires costly chemicals and treatment processes to make our water safe to drink.
If one doesn't have public restroom access while at Utah's many wonders, it is essential to pack human waste out. Yeah, it sounds gross. But it's not as bad as it seems. With a little foresight, there should be no overly smelly accidents. There are currently two recommended methods to pack it out — the “cheap and reusable” way, or the “inexpensive and disposable” way.
People experienced with hiking and climbing might recognize the reusable option — the "poop tube." A poop tube you can make yourself using a few pieces of black ABS pipe, following these directions.
- A forearm’s length of pipe (about 3 to 4 inch diameter)
- Cleanout plug/screw cap
- DWV threaded hub
- DWV cap
- Black ABS cement
The idea is to glue all of it together except the screw cap, so you can open it. Then when nature calls, you poop into a grocery/plastic bag and tie it up securely (you know, the grocery bags we shouldn't be using). Repurposing plastic sacks for this valiant reason is more commendable than just tossing them loose and useless.
Then, double-bag the waste and used toilet paper. Seal it in the tube and pack it out with you. When home, empty the bag’s contents (not the bag) into your toilet or garbage can. Wash out the poop tube and use it on your next trip. The ABS plastic is durable and the screw cap seals in the unpleasantness. Emptying and cleaning the tube isn't too bad if the bag inside is knotted up tight. Worst case scenario, the tube can smell like a bathroom (a quick enzyme cleaning soap rinse can help that).
The disposable way is just as easy. It’s lightweight and inexpensive — the “Go Anywhere Toilet Kit” a.k.a. “wag bag.” A wag bag can be purchased at sporting goods stores like The Gear Room andalso IME (3265 E. 3300 South). They’re generally around $2 or $3. There's different types of wag bags. The fancier style has some kitty litter inside to absorb moisture. They come with toilet paper and a towelette for hand sanitizing. They have an aluminum coating so the bag won't puncture or tear. The idea is the same. Do your business in the bag, seal it up and carry it home, once again disposing of it properly.
If you’re paranoid about carrying waste, you could get a poop tube and also put the wag bags inside. Some may consider that a little overkill, but taking whatever steps to modernize habits is crucial. If we can pick up after our dogs, humans can step up to the same expectations. Water is a precious resource in Utah. Safe clean water, is nonnegotiable.